Stealth Bomber Resembles 1940-Era ‘Flying Wing’ : Northrop Founder Saw Vision Reborn

Times Staff Writer

Jack Northrop, the aviation pioneer who founded Northrop Corp., was granted an extraordinary government security clearance just before his death in 1981 to see the company’s design for the B-2 Stealth bomber, which resurrects the “flying wing” concept he had invented in the 1940s, the company’s chairman disclosed Wednesday.

“I went to the Air Force and said, ‘Let this man know,’ ” Northrop Chairman Thomas V. Jones told shareholders in response to a question Wednesday at the firm’s annual meeting. “And--God bless the Air Force--they did.”

Northrop abruptly retired in 1952 as chief executive of the company at the relatively young age of 57 and sold his holdings in the firm. He is understood to have been devastated by Air Force cancellation of contracts for development of a new bomber utilizing the flying wing design.

As its name implies, the design does not have a conventional fuselage or tail assembly, relying instead on a massive wing structure to carry pilots, payload and engines. The original flying wing was built for reasons of aerodynamic efficiency, but the current B-2 also uses the concept to elude detection by radar.


The Air Force’s decision to cancel the original flying wing in 1949 remained shrouded in mystery until Jack Northrop disclosed in 1979 in a taped television interview that the cancellation resulted from his resistance to Air Force coercion.

Former Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington, who later was elected a senator from Missouri, had demanded in 1948 that Northrop merge with Consolidated Vultee Aircraft of San Diego, which today is the Convair division of General Dynamics, Northrop said.

When Northrop refused, Symington canceled the flying wing contracts and ordered all of the aircraft built under the contract to be destroyed, Northrop said. The contracts were for the YB-29 and YB-49 aircraft. (Four years after the taped interview was aired, Symington denied Northrop’s account.)

“Those airplanes were destroyed in front of the employees and everybody who had their heart and soul in it,” Richard W. Millar, a later Northrop chairman, said in the 1979 TV program.

As early as 1929, however, Northrop was convinced that a flying wing design would out-perform traditional aircraft. However, it is still not known how well the B-2 flying wing will fly.

At a news conference after the shareholders’ meeting Wednesday, Jones said he convinced the Air Force, apparently in 1980, to allow Northrop to enter the top-secret development facilities, saying: “ ‘Hey, this guy isn’t much longer for this world. We can trust him.’ I was so proud of the Air Force for doing it,” he added.

Asked what Northrop’s reaction was to the reincarnation of his invention, Jones said: “He started asking me questions.”

But even after Northrop saw the B-2 Stealth bomber design, Jones noted, “He couldn’t tell anybody he had seen it.” Northrop died on Feb. 18, 1981.